Why Relying On Willpower To Get Healthier Is Pointless (And What You Should Do Instead)
Non-habit based method to quit compulsive eating and lose weight easily.
“Where there is a will, there is a way”
“People do not lack strength; they lack will.” — Victor Hugo
“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.” — Vince Lombardi
All our life, we’ve been told that we just need to try and try till we succeed.
That if we really want something and will it, we can do it. No wonder then that we consider ourselves failures for not demonstrating enough self-control, discipline or willpower.
Maybe lately, you’ve heard that willpower is a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger.
But you have been trying to eat healthier, you have been trying to go to the gym, you have been trying to avoid the midnight munching for a while now, haven’t you?
You have been exercising your willpower muscle for quite some time, so what now? Why isn’t it still working?
Why Willpower Doesn’t Work
Willpower (or self-control in other terms) doesn’t work not for lack of trying, but for other mental, emotional and biological reasons that are not always in our control.
Simply, there isn’t enough willpower in a day for us to meet all of life’s demands and still have the self-discipline left to eat healthy (and not steal a cookie or ten at dinner).
1. Willpower comes from the same pool of energy that we need for other physical, mental and emotional activities.
This could be as simple as hitting the gym, as exhausting as having to deal with an annoying colleague at work or as draining as a serious relationship conversation with our partner. Because we have so many such demands on our energy each day, we just don’t have any willpower remaining by the end of the day.
Cue — sitting in front of the TV and stuffing chips in our face.
2. Willpower is used to delay gratification in this world full of F.O.M.O.
Every time we see an amazing beach selfie of a friend on Facebook, feel jealous and then rationalize with ourselves, we use up willpower. Every time we walk into Starbucks to pick up coffee, glance at the muffins and tell ourselves we shouldn’t get one, we use up willpower.
Our generation lives with so much fear of missing out that we end up having to exert extra effort to stay grounded. No wonder then that we don’t have energy to go to the gym and need an entire weekend binge-watching mindless Netflix shows & eating delicious food to feel rested.
Wait — this is when you wanted to meal prep for the rest of the week, didn’t you? 😂
3. We will ourselves to meet external expectations everyday.
Tweaking a presentation for hours to please an anal boss, sitting through an extended dinner with annoying in-laws — every day we make compromises, we stay diplomatic and use up our self-control reserves doing things that we don’t fully believe in.
By the end of the day, we are so tired and we seek comfort in food. At that moment, trying to call up our willpower resources (which are already exhausted by the way) to not eat the very thing that’s helping us feel better is impossible.
4. We strive for multiple goals, which demands more willpower.
It’s not just enough to eat a healthy lunch — we want to hit the gym for an hour, not even sniff at a cookie and get our five servings of vegetables. On top, we want to ace the meeting with the client, get 8 hours of sleep and make dinner at home for the kids.
It’s the perfect recipe to run out of willpower way before getting half the to-do list done.
Too many goals means that our energies are split between a multitude of activities and we end up not being able to do any of them well enough. We then feel guilty for not living up to our own expectations which further saps our energy.
5. We try to beat food with willpower.
We eat hyper-palatable foods like chips and cookies which send our brain into happiness overdrive, and then somehow rationalize that we won’t do it again. We forget to realize that biologically, our brains love this food and want more of it.
It takes an extra push of mental and physical energy to then resist these foods, much more than if we had never eaten them in the first place.
It’s like giving a child candy and then telling them not to eat it. No chance that’s happening!
What You Should Do Instead Of Willpower
If it is so easy to use up our energy through the day, i.e., if willpower is not the most reliable source of discipline and self-control, what should we do to make progress instead?
First, we need to acknowledge that willpower is a limited resource and we are going to run out of it, sooner or later.
Then, we can modify our approach to tasks — i.e., we can use our inner motivations rather than rely on external willpower to get things done.
1. Know your “why”
The biggest reason for needing to rely on willpower is because our motivations are unclear.
- Why do we want to lose weight?
- Why do we want to stop obsessing over food and eating compulsively?
- Are these things the #1 or #2 priorities in our life?
When our motivations are obvious, relevant and make sense to us intuitively, we need to rely lesser and lesser on willpower to achieve our goals.
To make really big changes like integrating health into our lifestyle is not just a matter of prioritizing it but really digging deep into our “why”, visualizing success, using it daily to motivate ourselves and break old habit patterns.
Check out these free resources to learn more about how to leverage visualized motivation to overcome inertia and start living healthier.
2. Be internally driven instead of externally engaged
Studies have shown that people who engage in activities because they “want to”, not because they “should” don’t really need much willpower to keep going.
We should always try to find reasons why we “want to” do something to make life easier, more efficient and honestly far more enjoyable.
This requires changing our mindset from thinking like a rebel (or) obliger to thinking like a questioner (or) upholder.
This is based on Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies personality model, where upholders and questioners meet inner expectations far more readily than meeting outer expectations. Questioners especially are great at internalizing external expectations which then makes them internally motivated to achieve them.
3. Decide and do it. Don’t argue with yourself.
We use up much of our mental capacity rationalizing different decisions to ourselves.
“Should I get the cookie?”
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“But it’s just one cookie. Didn’t I read about how restricting foods is unhealthy and will just increase my craving for it?”
“Well, yes but I can never stop at one cookie. I always end up eating the entire pack. So this is a bad idea. Let me not do it.”
“Okay, fine. No cookie then.”
Walks back to office proud of resisting the cookie….30 minutes later is still thinking about the damn cookie and now dreaming about it…
“Why did it have to be dark chocolate double choco-chip…Ugh!”
“I don’t think they usually have this flavor, maybe it’s limited edition”
“It smelled so good! I’ll just have it this once!”
*Walks back to the coffee shop and buys the cookie just to get it out of her mind*
Phew! Just thinking about this happening is exhausting and making me want a cookie!
Can you imagine how much more energy it takes the mind to go through this entire internal dialogue? And then resist the food at the end of it?
If we want to eat something, we should just eat it.
If we don’t want to eat something, then we should just think about what we are going to tell our whiny brain in advance so we don’t get into childish arguments with it.
Rationalizing and arguing with ourselves is actually self-sabotage, because at the end of the argument we are so tired that we actually crave the very food we are avoiding for a pick me up to feel better.
At the end of the day, if we are serious about getting healthier, we should make health our first or second priority in life. This will mean we know our “why” and be sufficiently motivated internally to integrate healthier living into our lives.